Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960)
String Quartets: No. 1 (1924) [15:07]; No. 2 (1934-35) [22:20]; No. 3 Quartetto Lirico (1948-51) [22:48]
Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney (violin 1); Philip Burrin (violin 2); Michael Beeston (viola); Mark Bailey (cello))
rec. 18-20 May 2009, Prestonkirk Parish Church, East Linton. DDD
World premiere stereo recording of all three of Seiber's string quartets
DELPHIAN DCD34082 [60:17]
Here we have Seiber’s three string quartets from three consecutive decades and in three styles though the last two have more in common with each other. They are played by the Edinburgh Quartet with exemplary attention to Seiber’s subtlety, singing proclivities and gutsy energy. Nor have Delphian short-changed them. The recording is fruitily close and has vivid impact.
The Edinburgh Quartet has never been content to cruise through familiar waters. On BBC Radio they have tackled Arnold (Second Quartet, 20 August 1982), Cedric Thorpe Davie (Directions for A Map with soprano Marie Slorach), Frankel, Gál, McEwen (Ninth Quartet in 1986), Rubbra (First Quartet, 1993), Ronald Stevenson (Voces Vagabundae 1993) and Van Dieren (Sixth Quartet). On commercial recording there’s Priaulx Rainier’s Quartet on Redcliffe review details. They have also made recordings for Delphian including a Thomas Wilson portrait (DCD34079) with his String Quartet No. 3 (1958), Edward Harper (DCD34069), Robert Crawford (DCD34055), The Cold Dancer anthology (Contemporary Quartets by Dempster, Clapperton, Weir and Sweeney, DCD34038), Hans Gál (Complete Quartets Meridian CDE84530 and CDE84531); Kenneth Leighton (Meridian CDE84465 CDE84460) and various Scottish Quartets by the Earl of Kelly, Mackenzie, Wilson and McEwen (Meridian CDE84445) List of delphian reviews here.
Mátyás Seiber was one of a generation of émigré composers who made - or were forced to make - the UK their home in the 1930s and 1940s. His star is rising to a modest zenith as we can see from the Seiber website. His Ulysses cantata (1947), still unrecorded, receives its U.S. premiere conducted by the matchless Leon Botstein in a superbly unhackneyed programme including Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique and Schoeck’s Lebendig Begraben at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, 6 October 2010. In 2005 Hungaroton issued a collection of his songs and chamber music HCD 32405 and a review of that disc will appear here soon.
His output is devoid of the standard forms apart from the quartet of which there are three instances. His other works include: Fantasia Concertante for violin and string orchestra (1943), Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra (1951), Notturno for horn and string orchestra (1944), Besardo Suite No. 2 (1942), Elegy for viola and small orchestra (1954), Tre Pezzi for cello and orchestra (1957) and Improvisations for Jazz Band and Orchestra (with John Dankworth) (1959). The vocal works with orchestra include two major Joyce pieces: Ulysses: cantata for tenor solo, choir and orchestra (1947) which was broadcast in 1972 by David Atherton with the LSO, Goldsmiths Choral Union and the tenor Alexander Young. It is joined by the Three Fragments from the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The instrumental and chamber music includes the Divertimento for Clarinet and string Quartet (1925), Permutazioni a Cinque for wind quintet (1958), Violin Sonata (1960), Concert Piece for violin and piano (1954), Serenade for six wind instruments (1925), Two Jazzolettes for 2 saxophones, 2&2 (1929 and 1932) and the Sonata da Camera. His list of songs includes Yugoslav Folk Songs and Hungarian Folk Songs, the Medieval French Songs, the Lear Nonsense Songs and The Great Tay Whale. There are several film scores as well: Animal Farm; A Town Like Alice; The Owl and the Pussycat; Chase a Crooked Shadow; The Magic Canvas and Robbery Under Arms. He wrote a ballet score in 1960: The Invitation. Peter Racine Fricker dedicated his Fourth Symphony to Seiber in 1966. Seiber’s meagre LP discography includes the Jazz Improvisations by the late-lamented Johnny Dankworth with his band and the LPO conducted by Hugo Rignold. This was followed by an album coupling Searle’s Symphony No. 1 (cond. Boult) with Seiber’s Viola Elegy (Cecil Aronowitz) and the Three Fragments where Peter Pears was joined by the Melos and Dorian ensembles conducted by the composer (Decca LXT 5588 and then SXL 2232).
The three quartets are far from prolix. They are serious and catch the composer in three phases of development - none better or worse than the other. The First Quartet carries the beneficent marks of his teacher Kodaly. Yet across its three movements it is also wilder and more feral. Hungarian folk and dance material is to the fore but especially in the finale it is barbarically driven in a raw way more akin to Bartok than Kodaly. Yet overall in the balance between Bartok and Kodaly the latter dominates. The work is very pleasing indeed and will appeal strongly if you are a Kodaly fan. The Second Quartet is from a decade later. It is pretty frankly dissonant and distinctly tougher going. The Third Quartet is a work of Seiber’s high noon maturity yet here dissonance is tempered by a chilly lyrical strain. The latter was premiered in April 1952 at London’s Contemporary Music Centre. The superb liner-notes quote letters to Norbert Brainin confirming that Seiber had the sound of Brainin's Amadeus Quartet in mind when he was writing the Lirico. The first recording – the only one before this - was by the Amadeus. It can be heard alongside Tippett on EMI Classics’ British Composer Series 7243 5 85150 2 2. This was issued in 2003. The Amadeus recording was made in analogue mono at No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road on 24-25 May 1954 and times out only three seconds longer than the duration declared for the Delphian version. It was first issued in 1956 with Tippett’s Second Quartet on EMI ALP 1302.
The composer Hugh Wood wrote the notes. He was a pupil of Seiber (1958-59) and also has five quartets to his name.
This is a significant step forward in the British music discography. More to the point the music encompasses a range from folksy to dissonance tempered by a chilly lyricism. The music is played with every appearance of complete commitment.
Alan Gibbs has also listened to this recording
Two of these quartets by the Hungarian-born composer date from before he decided to settle in the UK in 1935. But once he had arrived, like Gerhard, Wellesz and Reizenstein he became an integral part of the British musical scene, helping to found the Society for the Promotion of New Music, writing scores for concerts, films, ballet – even Hoffnung festivals - teaching at Morley College and conducting the Dorian Singers. Aware of the textbook-conservatism of the UK colleges, he insisted that ‘the teaching of composition should be based on the actual practice of the masters of past and present’ and, with his European background, warned against ‘the danger of isolationism, always inherent in an island community’ (quotations from Tempo 11 of June 1945). He led by example, putting both of these precepts into practice in his own music, and Hugh Wood, in his masterly sleeve-notes, rightly asserts that the quartets, in themselves, form ‘a synopsis of new musical developments in the first half of the twentieth century’. The Amadeus Quartet recorded No 3, but this new recording, issued in the fiftieth year after Seiber’s untimely death, is the first to present all three, fitting snugly onto one disc. The composer’s daughter Julia has recently uncovered his correspondence shedding light on the origins and form of Nos. 1 and 3 which Dr Wood is able to quote, and this may, if wished, be supplemented by reference to Seiber’s analytical note on No 2 in Rufer’s Composition with Twelve Notes.
His three quartets are all in three movements. No. 1 is a very approachable student work, guided by Kodály and showing the inspiration of his teacher and of Hungarian folk music. No. 2 (1934-5) is a different proposition: Bartók at his most uncompromising (Fourth Quartet) meets Schoenberg and Berg (Lyric Suite), not least in the Presto finale, scurrying sotto voce with mutes and an array of other string effects, interrupted by extended explosive and more lyrical sections. Bartókian use of small intervals as building blocks is channelled into a note-row with seconds at beginning and end and tritones in the middle. The central movement is a parodistic Intermezzo “alla Blues”, reminding us that Seiber pioneered the serious study of jazz in Frankfurt in 1928. Here it is seen through a serial prism, as in Schoenberg’s Op. 29 of 1926. Serial, yes, but not rule-bound: ‘the only thing that interests me is whether I succeeded in writing some real music’ – and he did. The yearning opening phrase of No. 3 (Quartetto Lirico, 1948-51), briefly reminiscent of Berg’s Op 3, initiates a work of expressiveness and passion, with a lighter scherzo (and fractious trio) for contrast. The pensive lento espressivo finale leaves us with a low, insistent two-note figure in the cello, Seiber’s own instrument, and comes to rest (like the first movement) on a calm major triad.
This CD is very persuasive. This will not surprise anybody who observed the total commitment of the Edinburgh Quartet (albeit with a different leader) in the same programme at concerts in Cambridge and London in 2005. They have risen splendidly to the many demands: folklike celebration, gritty ferocity, haunting passion, feverish mutterings, reassuring calm, unanimous in tempi from very slow to extremely fast, and with pauses allowing the music to breathe. The engineers have captured a wide range of dynamic so that no note is lost – important in such meticulously crafted music.
see also article on Seiber by Francis Routh